News Articles

Missionaries shed committees to put focus on soul-winning

DAKAR, Senegal (BP)–Everybody jokes about committees. And the quips about the Southern Baptist penchant for creating committees, like lawyer jokes, would be funnier if they weren’t so true.
But what do you do when committees get in the way of something important, like, for example, winning people to Christ and starting churches?
Southern Baptist missionaries in three countries of West Africa faced that dilemma this past year — and the bold solution they chose foreshadowed the approach International Mission Board leaders would later select to revitalize the board’s entire global missions effort.
Like most of their colleagues elsewhere in the world, Southern Baptist missionaries in Senegal, The Gambia and Guinea-Bissau invested large blocks of time to keep the gears of their mission organizations grinding.
Four times a year, they packed up their families and made often-grueling overland trips for week-long meetings with their colleagues in the country. Ministries ground to a halt so committees could grind out decisions like whether this couple could replace their worn-out vehicle or what color that couple could paint their house.
That’s an exaggeration, of course. The committees also dealt with serious issues of mission strategy and budget allocation. But frustration with the cumbersome committee structure ran high.
“Under the old system, we had to stop work every three months, go down to the coast and attend an executive committee meeting because the constitution of our organization required it,” said Chris Austin, an agriculturist who has served among the Mandinka people of The Gambia since 1983.
“We were busy maintaining the structure while the Mandinka went to hell,” said his wife, Karen.
So, late in the spring of 1996, missionaries in each of the three countries decided to dissolve their old mission organizations and realign themselves in a radically different manner. While they had traditionally focused on developing ministries within a specific country, the missionaries elected instead to divide into teams committed to taking the gospel to specific ethnic people groups.
Decisions about things like vehicles and buildings once vested in a contentious committee process now would be handed off to “facilitators,” while decisions about missionary strategy would be made by team members familiar with a people group’s needs.
“It was obvious the old system was not going to get the job done,” said Gary Inman, former business manager and treasurer for Southern Baptist missionaries in Togo who recently transferred to Senegal to work as business facilitator for the missionary team focused on the Wolof people group.
“After 25 years of work, there were only 25 Christians among 3 million Wolof.
“We don’t know exactly where this process will take us, but we’re excited about it.”
The new approach does present missionaries with several challenges.
For one thing, team members must trust facilitators to do the best they can with difficult tasks like buying a new vehicle or locating missionary housing.
Another challenge lies in the way teams reach decisions. Rather than the time-honored “democratic” committee vote, the new people group teams will work toward a consensus identified by their team leaders.
A thornier matter is managing finances. Since people groups spread across national borders, a missionary assigned to one people group might travel through two or more countries. Expenses incurred in the currency of one country might need to be registered on books kept in a different currency in another country.
“It could take awhile for people to develop the trust in us that’s needed for us to take care of things for them,” said Larry Verlander, the former business manager and treasurer for Senegal missionaries who now manages the finances for workers in all three countries.
“But the single most important thing is that evangelists and church planters will be able to focus more on evangelism and church planting.”
That’s the reason a team approach is being implemented worldwide among Southern Baptist missionaries, said IMB President Jerry Rankin.
“Our intention was to take the first step in liberating missionaries to do their task, rather than have so much time and energy drained away in administration and internal organization,” Rankin said.
“Our vision and desire is that we will all catch that passion for winning the whole world to Christ.”

    About the Author

  • Mark Kelly